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Pursuitist Meets Dan Cohn of B.R. Cohn Winery, maker of award-winning wine

Pursuitist Meets Dan Cohn of B.R. Cohn Winery, maker of award-winning wine

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B.R. Cohn Winery in Glen Ellen, Ca. enjoys a rarified position in the California wine industry: it is among a very select group of top-tier single vineyard designations for wine, and its cabernet sauvignon grapes are prized—just ask some of the state’s most renowned winemakers.

The family-owned winery is unique in the industry, according to Dan Cohn (see photo below), eldest son of founder Bruce Cohn. Today, B.R Cohn Winery is a European-style wine estate, where natural beauty, world-class wines, great music and expert hospitality come together to create an unmatched visitor experience. “It’s a brand and a legacy with a story that really can’t be duplicated,” says 39-year-old Cohn, a veteran of the wine industry, who was named chief executive of the winery and who shares ownership of the winery with his father.

Indeed. The picturesque Sonoma Valley property enjoys many distinctions that make it truly unique. For one, consider its location. The Olive Hill Estate Vineyard enjoys ideal conditions for cultivating superior cabernet sauvignon. It is blessed by natural underground hot springs and watered by an artesian well, ensuring the vineyard has warm soils and a naturally frost-free environment. Sonoma Mountain buffers Olive Hill from coastal fog, resulting in greater sun exposure for the grapes and daytime temperatures seven to nine degrees warmer than other parts of Sonoma Valley, ensuring the estate’s grapes ripen fully. “We have been frost-free for 60 years while our next door neighbors have needed to use fans to get rid of the frost,” says Cohn.

That’s because the winery is located in a “Banana Belt” of sorts, according to Cohn. “We are in the dry side, so the fog doesn’t affect us,” he says. “If you go five minutes in either direction you’ll get fog. It is pure luck that my dad got this land.”

The daytime warmth is tempered by cooling late-afternoon and evening breezes from the nearby Pacific Ocean that help the grapes retain acidity and result in earlier bud break, an extended growing season, and earlier harvests than in neighboring vineyards. The site’s dramatic diurnal fluctuations in temperature, coupled with its volcanic, gravelly loam soils (virtually identical to those found in Napa Valley’s famed Rutherford Bench), account for the tremendous flavor intensity and complexity that distinguish B.R. Cohn’s Olive Hill Estate and Olive Hill Estate Special Selection cabernets.

Olive Hill Estate consists of 61 acres of vines, of which 54 are planted to cabernet sauvignon, with the balance devoted to small plots of zinfandel, petite sirah and the Bordeaux cultivars cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec. The vineyard is divided into numerous blocks differentiated by sun exposure, grape variety, rootstock, trellising system and clonal selection. Each block is farmed according to its needs and winemaker Tom Montgomery’s desire to capture Olive Hill Estate’s unique terroir in estate red wines that are simultaneously bold and elegant. Some of the vines are older than Cohn himself. “There are vines that are 40 years old,” he says. “Most average around 15 to 20 years.”

In addition to supplying grapes for its much-lauded estate cabernet sauvignons, Olive Hill fruit contributes to B.R. Cohn Sonoma Valley Zinfandel and nationally distributed Silver Label Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery works with top growers to make its tier of regional wines, including Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, Sangiacomo Carneros Chardonnay and Sonoma Valley Merlot.

It’s no wonder that many of its wines have won countless awards and have been rated among the highest in the industry. Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker, Jr., for example, awarded the 2010 Olive Hill Estate Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 91 Points while the 2010 Sonoma Valley Zinfandel won “Best in Class” in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

Olive Hill is also home to an unusual 140-year-old Picholine olive tree grove, the largest collection of its type in California, from which B.R. Cohn makes its award-winning extra virgin olive oil. Olive Hill’s nine acres of nearly 500 olive trees are of the Picholine variety that is native to southern France. According to Cohn, the olive trees were imported to Sonoma Valley during the early 1870s and planted by Spanish missionaries. They are a rarity in California, which is dominated by Italian and Spanish olive varieties. B.R. Cohn’s ultra-premium extra virgin olive oil, which it began producing in 1991, was the first made in Sonoma Valley in nearly a century. Today, B.R. Cohn is among America’s most respected producers and its olive oil is certified 100% California extra virgin. The company also produces gourmet vinegars, including cabernet, chardonnay, chardonnay and balsamic vinegars among others.

The winery has an unusual tie to the music industry since its founder, Bruce Cohn, has been the manager of the Doobie Brother’s since 1970. Seeking a refuge from the band’s hectic touring schedule, Cohn purchased an old dairy farm and vineyard in 1974. He replanted the vineyard, immersing himself in all aspects of viticulture, from planting and pruning to grafting and trellising, with wise mentoring from Charlie Wagner of Caymus, among others, who saw the vineyard’s tremendous potential and later bought grapes from Cohn.

In 1984, after a decade of success as a commercial grape grower, Cohn established B.R. Cohn Winery. Budding superstar Helen Turley was the winery’s first winemaker and generated widespread attention and critical acclaim for B.R. Cohn’s maiden vintages of Olive Hill Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. She was succeeded at B.R. Cohn by Merry Edwards and later Steve MacRostie, all of whom were impressed by the unparalleled quality of the Olive Hill Estate Vineyard. In 2004, present winemaker Tom Montgomery joined the winery and remains in charge of daily winemaking operations.

So it is not surprising that the winery serves as the idyllic setting for the famed B.R. Cohn Fall Music Festival, one of the wine country’s most beloved and successful charity events. Each fall, wine lovers and music fans flock to Olive Hill Estate to savor the scenic wine country setting while enjoying music played in a 2,500-person capacity amphitheater by rock-and-roll royalty including the Doobie Brothers (see photo of a Doobie Brothers concert at the winery below), Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Gregg Allman, Robert Plant, Huey Lewis, Bad Company, Heart, Lynard Skynard and Journey, among others. All proceeds from the two-day festival go to Sonoma Valley charities, including the Valley of the Moon Children’s Foundation and various other youth and veterans organizations. To date, more than $6 million has been raised.

About half of the winery’s 50,000 bottles produced each year are sold to members of its wine club with the remainder distributed to restaurants across the country, retailers (in addition to retail orders placed on its website and at its tasting room). “Every thing we do is quality, not quantity,” says Cohn of his wines, which range in price from $40 to $100.

The B.R. Cohn Wine Club, which is about 15 years old, offers members the opportunity to receive its new releases and special edition wines at a discount from its limited production areas, including its famed Olive Hill Estate Vineyard. Shipments, which range from one to twelve bottle shipments, are sent up to four times a year, and may also include specialty small lot vineyards from the Carneros Region and the Sonoma Valley (some of which are only available through the wine club and the winery’s tasting room). There’s also a “Gourmet Food” club for those wanting regular shipments of the company’s olive oils and vinegars.

Wine Club members also enjoy unique privileges including tastings of library wines, preferential ticket pricing for its music festival one month before the public, and their own VIP seating area at the two-day festival.

This year, Cohn is planning to host more concerts at the winery to ensure Olive Hill estate’s wine lovers can sip their favorite wines while listening to live music (wine club members will enjoy a special VIP seating area for each performance).

In early 2015 Cohn is also planning to open a culinary center, which will offer cooking classes and demonstrations (lunches and dinners) hosted and prepared in an open kitchen by celebrity chefs from throughout the U.S. “People will be able to reserve a table for two, pay a fee, learn, and eat what is prepared by the chefs,” he says.

Cohn and his wife Ashley (photo below), who live near the winery, are often found behind the mahogany bar in the winery’s tasting room, which is located in his father’s former home. The tasting room, which is open to the public, is open daily from 10am to 5pm. Tours of the winery are available by appointment. For more information or to make a reservation, visit the company’s website or call (800) 330-4064 ext. 124.

The winery is unique in that it offers music, food (soon), and wine “all wrapped up into one,” according to Cohn. “It is these unique experiences and a family atmosphere that make it special,” he adds. “Life is grape.”

Photos courtesy of B.R. Cohn Winery & Olive Company